Those Damn Ls and Rs

I’m often asked, generally in Japan, which language I’m more comfortable with, English or Japanese.  Since my subconscience* (i.e. my dreams) has been in English for years, the answer to the question is obvious.

That answer, though, is actually a matter of relativity.  Just because English is my better language doesn’t mean I’m a good English speaker, reader or writer.  My performance on SAT Verbal suggests that I was merely above average in my English abilities more than a decade ago.

It’s hard to tell whether my journey of becoming a lawyer improved my English skills, but there is one way in which my English remains, well, that of a typical Japanese.

No doubt you’ve heard about how the Japanese have trouble distinguishing the “l”s and the “r”s.  I learned English during my carefree youth so I don’t recall being frustrated with this problem, but I came face to face with this when I tutored English to children who just arrived from Japan.  They all had trouble distinguishing “fly” from “fry”, “glass” from “grass” and “lock” from “rock.”

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that they had trouble pronouncing the “r” words.  “Fry” will sound like “fly” and so on.

I digress, but for this reason, I’ve always thought it peculiar that the Japanese use “r”s instead of “l”s when writing Japanese phonetically in the Roman alphabet.  I don’t know what moron decided to go with “r”s, but I’m pretty certain he was a Japanese who wasn’t pronouncing it correctly.  It’s about time the government seriously considered using “l”s instead of “r”s.  That would surely please my sister, who always hated that her passport stated her name as Risa.

Since I was mostly educated in America, one syllable “r” words don’t give me any difficulties.  But add a couple syllables and the only thing you’ll get from me is silence.

You will, for example, never hear me say the word “parallel” and “camaraderie” because there are far too many “r”s and “l”s to pronounce them right.  In daily usage, I replace the word “parallel” with a gesture of two fingers indicating the relationship of two lines the word describes.

Because I can’t pronounce the words, I can’t spell them either.  When I type “parallel” or “collaboration,”  I usually end up with something like “pararell” or “corraboration.”

Spellcheck obviously picks these up as misspellings, but they have no suggestions to offer.  The reason’s obvious.  No native English speaker mixes “l”s and “r”s.

Which is why I was recently impressed with when I had my latest run in with the damn “l”s and “r”s.  I was looking to use the word “laden,” as in “my most recent post on the Apple mouse is laden with sarcasm,” when I typed in “raden.”  The computer showed that annoying red line indicating that I misspelled.

This is a fairly common occurrence.  In addition to mixing “l”s with “r”s, I mix “a”s with “e”s, “i”s with “e”s and “o”s with “au”s.  Essentially, if it sounds similar in my not-so-perfect pronunciation, I have a tendency to jumble them.  Thus like I always do, I dutifully started replacing “raden” with “raiden,” “radin,” “reden,” and “redin” but alas, like now, I got nothing but red lines.

This, too, is all too common, but I have a backup plan: to consult to give me suggestions.

When I looked up “raden,” the website asked, “Did you mean redden?” No, I did not.  I don’t even know what that word means.

But then it listed all other possibilities below and, voila!, on top was the word “laden.”   I knew that was what I was looking for even without clicking on the word to see the meaning.  I was once again reminded how I hate “l”s and “r”s.

But I was impressed that the website picked up my Japanese-esq mix up.  I tested its limits by typing in “corraborate” and “pararell.”  It knew what I wanted in the former but not in the latter.  The site’s pretty good, but it’s clear a Japanese person didn’t design it.

*  See comment by Chris, who kindly points out that I misspelled this word.  A rather fitting mistake on a post about how my English still needs work.


10 Responses to “Those Damn Ls and Rs”

  1. 1 Ezzard February 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    thizu isu beri guu posuto! raiku yuu, mi aruso habbu purobulem wissu eru saundo.

    lol, I’m not even sure who I’m making fun of.

    • 2 joesas February 9, 2010 at 12:32 am


      That sounds like a Kenyan trying to pronounce English with a Japanese accent. Nice job being offensive to people from three continents.

  2. 3 Chris Schroeck February 9, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    It’s “subconscious”.

    I know I’m being a jerk-face about grammar/word usage, but I thought it was funny that in this particular post you misused a word so early on.

    • 4 joesas February 10, 2010 at 9:59 pm

      Damn! That would explain the fucking red line.

      Apparently, I pronounce “conscience” and “conscious” the same too. And to think I thought I was smarter than the spell check…

  3. 5 Joseph Lee March 6, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    As always, I appreciate your ability to laugh at yourself.

  4. 6 joesas March 6, 2010 at 7:51 pm


    Why thank you!

  5. 7 jon October 30, 2014 at 9:57 am

    I’m a little confused. Why does Japan use “r”s instead of “l”s? So is there no L sound in Japan or no R sound and they just choose one letter for both? It seems like two very odd letters to mix up, I’d like to hear a more full explanation on why its so much trouble.

    Also, can we get a video posted of you pronouncing all these trouble words?

    • 8 joesas November 3, 2014 at 9:27 am


      Last thing first: no videos shall ever be created, much less posted, of my attempting to pronounce these words.

      Second, to explain further, the Japanese language really doesn’t have the “r” sound, but for some reason, when it uses the Roman alphabet to show words phonetically, it uses “l.” So, the Japanese alphabet has the sound that’s very close to la, li, lu, le, lo, but it’s is expressed using the letter “r” (as in ra, ri, ru, re, ro). I agree these don’t sound much alike, and I’m convinced this happened because the first government official who was put in charge of coming up with official phonetical pronounceiation decades ago didn’t speak much English. The “r” sound is very hard to pronounce for a Japanese person since it doesn’t exist in native Japanese.

      Does this help?

  1. 1 Being “Bilingual” « The World According to Joe Trackback on January 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm
  2. 2 Growing Up White And Dealing With an Identity Crises* « The World According to Joe Trackback on July 18, 2011 at 1:14 am

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